BA and Civil Service Fight

Workers’ Resistance Grows Despite Union Sabotage

As we go to press, 200 000 Civil Service workers are taking part in a one-day strike whilst British Airways workers have just had their strike called off by Tony Woodley, once Trotskyist militant, now boss of the TGWU. Over 100 000 jobs are still at risk in the Civil Service, and a further 5% cut in staff costs is planned by the Treasury from 2008-11. British Airways staff have been fighting the imposition of a new sickness policy which cabin crews say forces them to work when they are ill, as well as reductions in rates of pay.

Both sets of workers also face the threat of worsening working conditions and pension cuts. Civil service workers have had pay rises limited to half the rate of inflation until at least 2011, which has led to thousands of workers with falling living standards, some of whom have not had a pay rise for over two years. At the same time, their pensions face death by a thousand cuts. BA, meanwhile, is proposing to close the £2.1 billion gap in its pension fund which would mean workers being forced to retire later. The move to Terminal Five has meant radical changes to working practices among ground staff due to a £450m cost cutting programme, forcing ground staff to accept worse working practices. In answer to all of this, the unions have only come up with dates for provisional one-day strikes and a potential overtime ban.

Civil Service workers...

Unrest by Civil Service workers has been simmering for years. In March 2005, some 1.2 million workers were due to come out on a TUC-led strike against Government plans. This was called off at the last minute to give both sides time for further negotiations which, as it turned out, won absolutely nothing for the workers involved but saved the day for the Labour Party on the eve of a general election. Now, two years on, workers in the public sector face the same cuts, but the state has had two years to prepare itself for any fight-back. Meanwhile, workers have spent the last two years being managed by their unions in a series of near strikes and sudden call-offs which have left them disorganised and demoralised.

...and their unions

The first compulsory redundancies, which the PCS said would never be accepted, were announced two months ago. The response of militant leaders like Mark Serwotka is to tour around the country drumming up support for the trades unions who he claims are under threat by the state. The reality is that the state and the unions often have a very cosy relationship, and the real division in interests is between the union and their own members. For all the cuts facing PCS members, the best Mark Serwotka can come up with is the promise of

a range of very imaginative forms of industrial action. We are already planning a second wave of action, which will not be a traditional one-day strike.

In short, they are planning over-time bans, which are not only fairly low on the creative stakes, they’re also pretty ineffectual. For the last two years, the PCS, for all its militant words, has held its members back from any kind of real action and continues to fritter away the energy and militancy of its workers. The one-day strike on January 31st is only a minor inconvenience to a Government which, on every other front, from internal corruption to the Iraq War, is in crisis.

BA workers...

This can be compared with BA workers who, during key moments in the same period, refused to listen to their unions or to be hamstrung by them. They staged unofficial strikes against new time-keeping practices and later baggage handlers came out in support of Gate Gourmet workers. It is estimated that in recent years unofficial action has cost BA £85million. In fact, it is only when BA staff have acted outside of and against their unions that they’ve won. The usual manoeuvrings to prevent staff walking out have been carried out by the TGWU, who cut the original strike time from 72 hours to 48. This is all part of strategy in which the unions have for some time been scratching around looking for a compromise that suits management.

...and their unions

The BA cabin crew voted to strike by over 96%, a massive percentage in anyone’s terms, but even this didn’t force the union’s hand. Jack Dromey, deputy secretary general of the TGWU (married to Cabinet Minister, Harriet Harman), pledged to resolve the dispute without strike action and delayed the start of the strike by 24 hours to allow negotiations to continue with Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive. This, despite the fact that Walsh has put additional conditions in front of any resolution. He has been brought in to get the conditions of BA workers closer to those of Ryanair.

Whilst chief executive at Aer Lingus, he presided over the sacking of over a third of the workforce, and brought in a programme of outsourcing which included at one point a three day lock-out of the workforce. In fact, it is clear that Walsh intended to break the workforce and if he had to go through a long strike then he was ready. To put pressure on the union, BA were daily sending out messages to passengers telling them that there would be a strike and that they should book with other operators.

For the unions, as ever, it is the health of the industry they work in which concerns them most and not their members. Tony Woodley held secret talks with Walsh on January 26th and afterwards pleaded with him to work with the union to reach a compromise settlement. Woodley’s deputy, Dromey, is mainly concerned that the cabin crew dispute could stir further unrest over the pension fund gap and the move to Terminal Five, which so far has gone smoothly for management thanks to the union persuading workers to accept worse working practices in the new terminal.

It would have helped if all the workers at BA had united to fight Walsh’s drive for lower costs, but the pilots union, BALPA, and other higher paid staff have accepted the cuts already as they will suffer least. As ever the unions are splitting workers and dividing them from each other. Now any fight-back against pension cuts which will disadvantage the lowest paid workers will be weakened, since the other two BA unions: Amicus and BALPA have recommended the pension deal to their members.

Unity of all the workforce, not union divisions

In the 1960’s when capitalism was still in its post-war boom, British management used to complain about the impossibility of reaching agreements with the Unions because the workers were divided up amongst so many different ones. Trivial “demarcation disputes”, which had nothing to do with real working and living conditions, were termed the “English disease”. Today, in some ways, it still exists but in the current conditions of capitalist attack on workers the unions only underline just how much they are part of the management since these same divisions are used to defeat resistance to attacks on living standards. Both BA and Civil Service unions are typical in that they not only disorganise workers and divide them physically, they also split up areas of disagreements so that one issue has to be fought over at a time. One-day strikes and overtime bans will do nothing to win a dispute, although they do put workers under considerable strain both financially and in terms of increasing the amount of work they have to catch up on. For workers to succeed, they need to act outside the control of their union and link up within and across sectors by holding mass meetings to elect recallable delegates. The attacks on workers are the same; the response, if it is to succeed, must be a united one.

The BA strikes have now been called off and the TGWU has issued a press release congratulating itself on “a significant improvement for our cabin crew members”. The press release is, however, economical with the truth. The TGWU congratulates itself on achieving a 4.6% “above inflation” increase (inflation is 4.4%!), but does not say that this only starts in February and not October as is normal in BA. This means that the annual rise is only 2.7%. This will only take wages to a basic £18,600 a year (for people living in and around London!) for those recruited after 1997. Older workers are on a higher pay scale and, contrary to the TGWU press release, this still remains although the differential has been reduced. But a 96% vote for a strike deserved much more. The fact is that the deal accepts BA’s plan to plug the £2.1 billion hole in the pension fund by demanding higher contributions and longer working lives for BA staff. Walsh seems also to have won on the question of Terminal Five. According to The Financial Times,

Mr Walsh has also won some much-needed changes in working practices ahead of the hugely important move to the new Terminal Five in Heathrow next March.

FT, January 30th 2007

All this in return for a promise to not bully staff! However, to cover their tracks the TGWU issued a statement (which coincided in timing with that released by British Airways) to say that:

The committee [aka Tony Woodley - CWO] has taken the view that this package would not be improved in any shape or form, irrespective of strike action.

But the workers were not consulted. The strikes, already postponed, could have been postponed again whilst workers decided whether this was acceptable or not. Oddly enough, in this democratic society where it takes weeks (by law) to organise a vote for a strike, there is not even a minimum of consultation to end it. The message is clear to any group of us who want to fight back (and the numbers are increasing once again). Don’t let others do your talking for you, unite beyond union boundaries and take control of your own movement.


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